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Breaking Free - Part II: A Journey

Overcoming the primitive brain in dieting

The current clinical assumption of bulimia and BED (binge eating disorder) argues these to be illnesses or diseases that attest to complicated innate emotional issues. In reality, the culprit is the actual urge to binge and all the faulty messages we tell ourselves about why we think we should binge. It truly does come down to this simple concept and here's how it usually starts: with a diet.

I thought about when I had my first binge and what compelled me to do it. At the time, I didn't understand that this is what I was doing and it wasn't often that I did it. It also didn't happen immediately after experiencing stress in my childhood that included abuse, running away from home, months of lock-up in a juvenile holding facility, fist fights with other kids, entering foster care and being placed several times with different strangers, mixed with lots of problematic adolescent transgressions. During this time, I felt isolated, unloved, unwanted, homeless; fear, loneliness, depression, anger, hostility, and pretty much like a misfit. I lived this way for years without bingeing but later came to believe that these were the very things that caused bulimia. The fact is that I didn't start binge eating until I began restrictive dieting when I was almost 15 years old. I started hanging around a group of girls in school who directed a lot of focus on looks and weight and I desperately wanted to be included. I just wanted to fit in somewhere.

At 15 years old, the human body is rapidly growing, changing and developing, and restrictive dieting goes against basic survival instincts. Given that I was also extremely active-hiking, cycling, running, horseback riding, water/snow skiing, weight training, aerobics classes, tennis-and rarely sat still for long, dieting sounded massive warning signals in my body. Restrictive dieting for me often included periods of complete starvation which ultimately ended in a binge. It didn't seem like anything to me at the time; I only saw it as breaking my 'diet' and feeling frustrated that I did. As the binges became more complex, I started hiding the behavior because I felt shame over breaking a diet and feeling ravenous to the point of wanting to eat everything I could get my hands on. I didn't look fat, in fact-I looked very fit and healthy but I wanted to be model-thin. The longer I engaged in this behavior, the harder it felt to stop. The urges to binge seemed to take on a life of their own. Since a binge was followed up by a purge (consisting of more starvation while compulsively over-exercising), this vicious cycle was actually 'programming' my brain to cue the urge to binge.

The cute little comic representation above of the primitive brain perfectly depicts the function of the limbic system. Anything immediate to survival (i.e., hunger, breathing), originates from this area of the brain. A starving person's primitive brain will send messages to eat (i.e., the urge). A complex process referred to as plasticity (the capacity of the brain to change with learning) then ensues with each of our actions. The primitive brain pays close attention to the process that brings about the desired outcome, which is that of ending starvation (the binge) . How does this learning happen? Changes associated with learning occur mostly at the level of the connections between neurons. New connections can form and the internal structure of the existing synapses can change. Through a network of neurons, sensory information is transmitted by synapses along the neural pathway and stored temporarily in short-term memory, a volatile region of the brain that acts like a receiving center for the flood of sensory information we encounter in our daily lives.

Faulty messages we receive from dieting

Once processed in short-term memory, our brain’s neural pathways carry these memories to the structural core, where they are compared with existing memories and stored in our long-term memory, the vast repository of everything we have ever experienced in our lives. This process occurs in an instant, but it is not always perfect. In fact, as information races across billions of neuron axons, which transmit signals to the next neuron via synapse, some degradation is common. That’s why many of our memories are incomplete or include false portions that we make up to fill holes in the real memory yet the brain effectively reactivates the neural patterns generated during the original encoding. These false portions can be seen as the places where we insert our own meaning and, as in the case of going off our diet, we may tell ourselves we're weak, we have no willpower, we're stressed out and deserve comfort food, etc.

These false messages become tied to the activity that gets the brain what it wants: food. Once the brain has produced neural paths that achieve the desired outcome, this behavior soon becomes habit.

This is the simplistic explanation for how binge eating develops and why urges can be so hard to overcome. The good news is that once you recognize that these messages are just faulty neural garbage, you can separate fact from fiction. It may not be easy, especially if this has become a habit enforced over years of participation-as mine was-but it will subside. In the same way that it is created, by actively teaching the brain that the urge is not something to be acted upon, the neural pathways will weaken and ultimately stop when the desired reaction is no longer generated.

Reprogram your brain for diet success

I know those of you with strong urges may be thinking 'Really?! Just say no?! Right!'

No one knows better than me how difficult this is. I also know that you must want to stop reacting to an urge. If there is no desire to change this behavior, then you won't. You don't have to be someone with bulimia or BED-if you constantly diet in an attempt to lose weight and just can't seem to stick with it because the urge to eat foods you shouldn't, and in the wrong amounts, ultimately wins out over your diet, consider that this has become a habit for you as well. I believe this is why diets don't work: they are usually far too restrictive and limiting, setting us up to have to struggle against urges.

This is why I feel the approach I used to turn this around is what made the difference after so many years. Just a few simple things:

1. Deciding not to buy binge food (instead of saying "I will lose weight").

2. I believed in my ability to achieve whatever I set my mind on-a roundabout way of also deciding I would not listen to my brain sending cues (urges) to binge.

3. Making sure I kept my caloric intake between 1,600 - 2,200 calories per day.

4. I blogged about the journey in a very public platform, sharing triumphs as well as setbacks, as holding myself accountable was crucial to me for my success.

The urges did weaken! When I stopped responding to them, they really had no choice but to die off. The human brain is truly amazing in that it can be retrained, rewired, reprogrammed and there is plenty of scientific evidence supporting this. Again, this can be challenging because you must be the one to set the work in motion and remain vigilant in your efforts to eradicate undesired behavior. You have to want to do this. Some moments can feel so challenging; at those times I reminded myself that if it were easy, everyone would be doing it. Champions are the ones that succeed. I want to be a champion. It's just a little thing about what I open my mouth for and I do have control over this! My primitive brain has been controlling the neural pathways that create urges, but I can change that. And I did!

If you feel that this is too simplistic of an approach and that you can't possibly just turn off the urge to binge like that: snap your fingers and Presto! It's gone! Ask yourself why. If you're not in control, who is? For those with bulimia or BED, I urge you to read Brain Over Binge as well as other books I recommended in part I of this post to gain a deeper understanding and most likely, help you to help yourself rid this from your life. If you truly believe that this is an illness or disease and that you need therapy, drugs, support groups, etc., to 'cure' yourself, understand that you will still have to do hard work, you will spend a LOT of money to do that hard work and that calling it something other than just a conditioned response will not make it any easier to overcome-in fact, it may make it harder to overcome. And, you'll still have to take responsibility for it.

Consider this quote by Andrew Solomon: We don't seek the painful experiences that hew our identities but we seek our identities in the wake of painful experiences. We cannot bear a pointless torment, but we can endure great pain if we believe that it's purposeful. Ease makes less of an impression on us than struggle. We could have been ourselves without our delights, but not without the misfortunes that drive our search for meaning.

Can you overcome binge eating? Yes, you absolutely can. BED is based on impulsive and reckless behavior brought on by faulty brain thought processes that ultimately become habit. Because this is centered around impulsive, reckless behavior, it's very important to stay in the 'NOW' and choose how you respond, not just impulsively react. You must unlearn what you think you know - in other words - the things you tell yourself are real that just aren't, as this behavior is completely based on irrational thoughts. Keep in mind that it is YOUR CHOICE to let this happen. Or not. Which will you choose for you? We want the transformation without the work. That won't happen, so do the work! Action, not excuses, as action is the anecdote for despair.

My greatest fear was that I would live a full life and never realize my full potential or experience the heights to which I could soar if I could just let myself go. Not having to spend energy engaging in pointless behavior has given me wings to explore and the countenance to persevere!

***In Brain Over Binge, the author discusses problems with current bulima/BED treatments and her perceptions of why they are not effective. I happen to be in complete agreement and feel that she has accurate insight into where the shortcomings lie, as I found them to be true of the methods I tried. While it is advised that you seek medical advise, you should also be aware that the medical community is not fully aware of what causes bulimia/BED, making it very hard to treat and that there is a 30-50% relapse rate with the most effective treatment, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. The medical community is also there to make money and may rather see you as sick as there's no paycheck from a well person.

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